Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Top four fight goes to the final day

The chances still seem slim given Liverpool just have to beat a relegated Middlesbrough at home, and Manchester City only need to avoid a heavy defeat to Watford, but Arsenal go into the final day of the season knowing a win could yet sneak them back into the Champions League for another year.
If results don’t go the way of the Gunners on Sunday and they do end up in the Europa League, it’ll be what has gone before during the season that has cost them rather than whatever happens on the final day. But despite the train wreck of a league season, it is to Arsenal’s credit that they have shown signs of recovery from a dreadful run of form to even give themselves a chance of dining again at Europe’s top table. I would have questioned the sanity of someone saying four weeks ago that Arsenal would still have a live chance of getting in the top four on the final day, but in a run of games since the defeat to Spurs when any dropped points would have been curtains for the league season, Arsenal have kept winning. It looked like the team reached rock bottom in the defeat to Crystal Palace and were beyond repair, but with the change of system, Arsene Wenger has very slowly begun the healing process.
The latest victory wasn’t as comprehensive as many hoped for on Tuesday against Sunderland, something that could haunt Arsenal should goal difference become a factor on the final day, but mainly down to the saves from Jordan Pickford in the Sunderland goal, Arsenal could only win 2-0. The Gunnners chalked up 36 shots in the game with the opening of the match feeling slightly like it was shoot-on-site as Arsenal looked a bit impatient to break through.
Chances came and went for Giroud, Ramsey, Bellerin and Holding, as well as other more speculative efforts as Sunderland frustrated Arsenal. The Gunners also looked fatigued after their exertions of the previous week to beat Manchester United and win away at Southampton and Stoke.
Despite any tiredness, Arsenal upped the intensity in the second half with Mesut Ozil really coming to the fore. He’s steadily improved in recent weeks, along with the team, as he’s got used to the new system, but on Tuesday he had a licence to roam about a bit with the visitors sitting deep. With the game needing some inspiration in the second half, Ozil was demanding the ball and driving the team forward. It was no surprise that he picked up the assist for the goal that broke the deadlock.
Ozil found Xhaka from the left and set off on a driving run into the box before the Swiss midfielder found him with a superb pass over the defence. The cushioned first-time ball from Ozil across the box was delightful and Alexis Sanchez was in the right place to tap in one of the easiest goals of his career.
The other key man in that goal, Granit Xhaka, continued his good recent form with another influential display. The quality of the opposition does have to be taken into account, but his passing was excellent all night. Playing as a deeper-lying player, his long range of passing was vital in stretching the packed Sunderland defence and making space for others. Don’t believe what some ‘experts’ say about him being a flop this season. His first season for Arsenal has been a lot about adapting to English football, and now that seems to have happened, I can’t wait to see him have a great campaign next year. He looks fitter and sharper than when he first appeared in the team and has learnt from mistakes that brought him cards earlier in the season. There’s definitely a great player in there. 
The security of Xhaka meant Arsene Wenger was able to introduce Alex Iwobi as an extra attacking creative player in midfield in the second half, and it was a very lively and positive cameo from a youngster who has been out of limelight recently. It definitely helped turn the game as Arsenal were able to flood the box and play with a greater fluidity.
Keen to get more goals, Arsenal didn’t relent after going 1-0 up. The second came as a short corner worked its way across the pitch through Iwobi and onto Shkodran Mustafi, who had popped up on the right wing. He whipped a great cross above the goalkeeper for Giroud, but Pickford managed to parry the Frenchman’s acrobatic volley. Unfortunately for the keeper, Alexis was perfectly positioned to nod in the rebound to bag a brace.
Champions League qualification is still out of Arsenal’s hands, but strange things have happened on the final day before. This has mainly been at Tottneham’s expense, but it’s not completely outside the realms of possibility that there could be a chef change at Liverpool’s team hotel and lasagne is suddenly on the menu on Saturday night. If Arsenal can score early against Everton on Sunday and Liverpool get wind of it, the pressure could just increase and something unexpected could happen. A long inquest will be needed if Arsenal do end up in the Europa League, but at least there’s still a chance of avoiding it going to the last weekend.